For Mike Brey, the recruiting trip was not going to be easy.
Dressed casually in sweats, comfortable in his own skin and with the pitch he was about to make, the Notre Dame coach made his way from his car to the McAlarney house on Bryson Ave. last Jan. 24. Walking past the pole where a Fighting Irish flag once flew, inside the door and into the living room, Brey was in the unenviable position of trying to convince Kyle McAlarney, his sharp shooting sophomore point guard not to transfer to another school. "I wore nothing with Notre Dame on it, just plain clothes, and there were nails on their walls where the Notre Dame paraphernalia had once been," says Brey, who beat out Herb Sendek's N.C. State staff to land McAlarney out of high school. "This was going to be about a player and a coach and a relationship."
Three days earlier, Notre Dame's Student Affairs committee had suspended McAlarney for a semester as punishment for McAlarney's arrest on marijuana possession. The charges had stemmed from a routine traffic stop at 2 a.m. on Dec. 29, just hours after the guard had scored a career-high 21 points against Rider. Having been suspended by Brey immediately, the coach and the player had awaited word from the student judiciary council, but no answer came until Jan. 22. Less than an hour before the team, with McAlarney included, was to board a bus then a plane to New York for a game at Madison Square Garden against St. John's, McAlarney walked out of his hearing with an unexpected suspension. "I could read his body language when he walked out before he could even say anything," says Brey, who waited outside the room and then took his player for a private 10-minute ride around campus to cool him off.
With the team waiting, though, Brey returned to the bus and departed for New York, leaving behind McAlarney, who would drive back to New York. "The timing was just awful," says Brey. "We got word, and then the team had to go to New York. I didn't want to just leave him in that state, but there was no other choice."
"When I left campus," says McAlarney, who packed none of his Notre Dame gear before leaving the Crossroads of America. "I thought it was for the last time."
Adds McAlarney's father, Patrick, "The timing was pathetic on the school's part, and to not take into account a kid's character and past when dealing with an incident should be something the school revises in its system."
The Irish lost to the Red Storm, 71-68, that night and Brey, who had planned on staying and visiting McAlarney if the team won, boarded the team's charter back to South Bend. From his office that Wednesday, an off day for the team, Brey called McAlarney and asked if he would allow him to fly to New York and visit his family. "After an hour or whenever, if you feel I shouldn't be there, tell me to get the hell out. I think I deserve a chance, though," Brey said.
McAlarney consented, and Brey booked a flight. By 10 that night, there was Brey, with tension hanging in the air and the television still playing in the living room, talking with the family for two hours. With each opinion voiced, Brey got up to leave. Though the family offered him a ride to the airport, he declined, saying he had a driver to pick him up. Before he left, though, he took out McAlarney's black Notre Dame jersey from his brief case. "I said, 'Hey, put this on from time to time.' At that point Kyle got a little emotional and I just left."
The next day, Brey received a call from McAlarney. He would return to the Irish. "I don't think a lot of coaches would have done all that he did," says McAlarney. "I had a lot of options and the easy road would have been to transfer, but I felt most comfortable with coach."
One aspect of the criticism he received is the stricter-than-most rules of Notre Dame student life, but Brey does not argue against the system in South Bend. "I hated hearing that at other places it may have been a game or a half suspension," says Brey. "We all know what we signed up for here. The punishment was consistent with others."
Ten months, a pre-trial diversion program, re-enrollment and seven games later, McAlarney is leading the Irish in minutes played (33.7 per game), scoring 14.1 ppg and shooting 48.9 three-point shooting percentage. Upon his return, he has made an instant impact on the Irish as he found his stroke the last three games, hitting 17 threes and averaging 23 ppg in that stretch. "He gets the Colin Falls scouting report now with defenses hugging him and knowing he's the shot out there," says Brey, whose Irish are 5-2.
Unable to return to campus until last May for summer classes, McAlarney, who ranks fourth in New York high school history for career point scored (2,566), took second semester classes at the College of Staten Island. By early morning and night, McAlarney, who had been given the key to his high school gym as a junior at Moore Catholic and was known for working out as early as 4:30 a.m., returned to his old haunt, putting himself through exhaustive workouts, many times shooting with no lights on.
"I had yet to see him since returning, but I told the custodians to let them know he would probably be in the gym at some point and that was okay," says Moore Catholic coach Rich Postiglione, who retired McAlarney's No. 23 and it hangs encased above the gym's main entrance. "They said he had already been there a few nights at 10. I don't blame him for going under the radar, I mean, how many questions can you answer?"
"Those workouts were so therapeutic, getting to sweat out a lot of anger early on," says McAlarney.
Tuesday night, in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader at Madison Square Garden, the forgotten borough's favorite son will be back in New York. Flying in with the Irish late Monday, he will make the trip that never happened last season. In this, the year of the freshman, on a night when the likes of Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose all continue to grow their already marketable legacies on the Garden's marquee, here comes McAlarney. Now a junior, who missed the Irish's entire Big East schedule last season, he will play in front of Staten Islanders, trekking to the game by train, foot and ferry to see him play. Among those in the stands will be his mother, Janice, wearing the black jersey presented by Brey, and flanked by the family priest on her right. "I'm sure I'll look up and see familiar faces in the crowd," McAlarney says. "I think the journey with the guys is what I missed most."